Foundations in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Detroit have faced conditions before and after crises that are all but unimaginable. For example, Detroit has enough vacant and unused land to fit inside San Francisco, more vacant land than any city in the U.S. except for post-Katrina New Orleans, a poverty rate of 38 percent, and a labor force participation rate of 50 percent, the lowest in the nation. What can foundations do with such a challenge?
Kurt Metzger of Data Driven Detroit said that the “foundation community (is) leading the charge” particularly through collaborations. But Angela Reyes of Detroit’s Hispanic Development Corporation noted “a temptation (among funders) to fund only those new things coming in and ignore people who’ve been there all along.”
At the same time, foundations had best be advised not to get too caught up by their own promotional stuff and miss the feedback that community leaders on the ground would tell them if they could possibly get to the foundation tables. The Skillman Foundation’s Carol Goss described its six-neighborhood program on K-12 education, telling the Council audience that “the critical voice for us is the voice of the people who live and work in the neighborhood.”
Pastor confirmed that from his experience, “the best kind of funders are those which have their ear to the ground…(listening to) what residents are thinking about.”
As a result, as much as a funder’s audience might hear basically only the positives about the Los Angeles Urban Funders or Detroit’s New Economy Initiative, the reality is that they do not garner unanimous community support and, in the case of Detroit’s NEI, are seen at times as having less equity built into their programmatic DNA than they should—and less than they say. For example, a collaborative like NEI in its prioritization of stimulating new entrepreneurship in the Motor City, might inadvertently or perhaps intentionally focus on grant support for new entrepreneurs from outside of the community, as opposed to unearthing and funding entrepreneurs already in Detroit who may be starving for investment resources.
For the most part, the stories from all three cities told of dynamics outside of government. With Detroit’s local government in a political and economic free-fall, fending off bankruptcy and a state takeover, Reyes said, “We can’t depend on policymakers or government; we need to make the change.” Because, she said, “the city has no resources, we could not do our work without help from the foundations.”
In contrast, Goss noted that her foundation works with community councils in each of the neighborhoods, “but we also have to work with the public sector. The kind of change we want requires that kind of partnership.” Regardless, the emphasis in these communities, especially New Orleans and Detroit, was one of a broken political culture creating something of a policy vacuum for foundation leadership to fill, but if it fills without “fixing” the mechanics of government, what is the democratic process that results?
These are all complex, nuanced stories, not easily translated to the short form of a conference plenary agenda. The Council deserves great credit for bringing this program to fruition, but the topic warrants a series of follow-up programs to ask how foundations and nonprofits can collaborate to turn around the Detroits of the world as well as the smaller, no less distressed communities that might not have major foundations ensconced in their midst.
Rick Cohen is a columnist for NonProfit Quarterly.